Meth lab busts increase in North Carolina

By DeeAnna Haney | Jan 28, 2013

Last year was another record-breaking year when it came to the number of meth lab busts in North Carolina.

While meth labs have decreased nationwide since 2010, they’ve dramatically been increasing in North Carolina every year since 2007.

Last year, law enforcement officials encountered 460 meth labs across the state, up from 344 in 2011.

Wilkes County responded to a whopping 58 meth labs last year, more than doubling the second highest number of 27 in Wayne County.

Only two were found in Haywood County, but that’s no reason to turn a blind eye to the problem, law enforcement say.

Despite fewer meth lab busts locally, plenty of people are being charged with possession of meth, suggesting that criminals are importing the drug or using new and easier methods to make it.

Det. Mark Mease with the Haywood County Sheriff's Office said that much of the meth found in Haywood is imported from Mexican drug cartels based in Henderson County.

While legislators have been battling the meth problem for years, local authorities say recent laws limiting the purchase of precurser chemicals for meth have contributed to the drop in large meth labs.

The law limiting access to pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in making meth, took effect Jan. 15, 2006.

The law limits purchases of products that contain the pseudoephedrine to no more than two packages at once and no more than three packages within 30 days.  Purchasers must show a photo ID and sign a log and all pills containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine must be placed behind a pharmacy counter.

The National Precursor Log Exchange is an electronic tracking system used between pharmacies linking 23 states. It’s meant to make it harder for criminals to shop at multiple stores and cross state and county lines to buy ingredients for meth.

About 54,000 purchases, a total of more than 66,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine, were blocked last year in North Carolina by pharmacies using the system. That amount could have been used to make 277 pounds of meth, according to the NC Department of Justice.

Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed said while the meth lab statistics are increasing, it's due to new methods of cooking.

"The laws are doing their job as far as keeping the amount down because you can't make meth in large quantities anymore," said Hollingsed.

Those laws blocking the purchase of pseudoephedrine have segued criminals into using the “one pot” or “shake and bake” method to make meth.

Rather than cooking meth the traditional way, a plastic bottle is used to mix the ingredients.

Unlike the old way of cooking meth, which involved heating containers of flammable liquid chemicals, the shake and bake method requires few ingredients and can easily be transported from place to place.

“It’s the predominate type of lab used by meth cooks in this area as well as other rural areas due to its simplicity and ease of mobility,” said Det. Mark Mease with the Haywood County Sheriff's Office.

According to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, officers are finding children living in more than 20 percent of homes where meth busts are made. In the last two years, 142 children were removed from meth lab sites.

“Prevention efforts have helped hold down the number of larger meth labs but small ones are still very dangerous,” said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper in a recent press release. “We need more law enforcement, better public awareness and continued use of technology to fight this crime.”

In response to the problem, the SBI requested nearly $600,000 in state funding to pay for a nine-person unit to combat meth manufacturing in the coming fiscal year.

Mease said he doesn't believe more legislation will be the key to solving the meth problem. Instead, he hopes funding will become available for more narcotics detectives to focus on the problem.

"I think the laws as far as the penalties are very good and very effective. It will just take more man power to hunt these labs down," he said.